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Japanese Mythology & Folklore: Yokai - Furutsubaki no Rei



Bewitching Tree Spirit

古椿の霊
ふるつばきのれい

TRANSLATION: old tsubaki spirit
HABITAT: tsubaki trees
DIET: water, soil, and sunlight

APPEARANCE: In Japanese folklore, almost anything, upon reaching an old age, can develop a spirit and become a yokai. When a tsubaki tree (Camellia japonica, or the rose of winter) reaches an old age, it’s spirit gains the ability to separate itself from its host tree, along with other strange and mysterious powers, which it uses to bewitch and trick humans.

ORIGIN: The tsubaki is an evergreen tree which has the strange behavior of not losing its flowers gradually, petal by petal, but dropping them all at once to the ground. As a result, it long been associated with death and strangeness in Japan (and is also taboo to bring as gifts to hospitals or sick people).

LEGENDS: Long ago in Yamagata prefecture, two merchants were walking along a mountain road when they passed a tsubaki tree. Suddenly a beautiful young woman appeared from out of nowhere on the road beside one of the merchants. She breathed on him, and instantly he transformed into a bee. She then disappeared into the tsubaki tree, and the bee followed her and landed on a flower. The fragrance of the tree had turned into poison, however, and as soon as the bee smelled it, it dropped to the ground. The flower soon fell off of the tree too. The other merchant picked up both the bee and the flower and rushed to a nearby temple to save his friend. The priest recited prayers and read the sutras over the bee, but it sadly did not return to life or to its former human form. Afterwards, the surviving merchant buried the bee and the flower together.

In Akita prefecture, long ago, a man heard a sad and lonely voice coming from the tree one night. A few days later, a disaster befell the temple. This happened again and again, and soon the priests at the temple realized that the tsubaki would cry a warning every time something bad was going to happen. The tree was dubbed Yonaki Tsubaki, or “night-crying tsubaki,” and still stands today in the temple Kanman-ji, where it has stood for over 700 years.

In Ōgaki, Gifu, there is an ancient burial mound. One year, historians excavated the burial mound and discovered some ancient artifacts, including a mirror and some bones; however, shortly after the man who discovered the artifacts died. The locals blamed it on a curse, and returned the artifacts to the mound, planting a tsubaki on top of it. When the tsubaki grew old, it transformed into a yokai tree. Since then, the glowing figure of a young, beautiful woman has been seen by the roadside near the burial mound at night.


Japanese Mythology & Folklore: Yokai - Furaribi



Fireball Yokai

ふらり火
ふらりび

TRANSLATION: aimless fire
ALTERNATE NAMES: buraribi, sayuribi
HABITAT: riverbanks
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: Furaribi is a small, flying creature wreathed in flames. It appears late at night near riverbanks. It has the body of a bird, and its face is somewhat dog-like. It is a type of hi-no-tama, or fireball yokai. It does very little except for float about aimlessly, which is how it got its name.

ORIGIN: Furaribi are created from the remains of a soul which has not properly passed on to the next life. This is most often due to not receiving proper ceremonial services after dying. In Japan there are a number of important ceremonies performed at fixed intervals which occur for many years after someone’s death — missing even one of these could cause a soul to become lost and be unable to rest. Furaru-bi is one of these lost souls.

LEGENDS: In the late 16th century, Toyama was ruled by a samurai named Sassa Narimasa. Narimasa kept a very beautiful concubine named Sayuri in his household. Sayuri was not well liked by the female servants and other women in Sassa Narimasa’s household. They were jealous of her beauty and of Narimasa’s love for her. One day, these women conspired against Sayuri and started a rumor that she had been unfaithful to Narimasa with one of his own men. Narimasa flew in a fit of jealous rage, murdered Sayuri, then took her body down to the Jinzū river. He hung her corpse from a tree and proceeded to carve it into pieces with his sword. Then he captured Sayuri’s entire extended family — 18 people in all — and executed them in the same manner. Afterwards, their tortured souls aimlessly wandered the riverbanks every night as furaribi.

It is said if you go down to the riverside and call out, “Sayuri, Sayuri!” late at night, the floating, severed head of a woman will appear, pulling and tearing at her hair in a vengeful fury. As for Sassa Narimasa, he was later defeated by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Some have attributed his defeat by Hideyoshi to the vengeful curse of Sayuri’s ghost.


Japanese Mythology & Folklore: Yokai - Funayūrei



Japanese Ghost Ship

船幽霊
ふなゆうれい

TRANSLATION: ship ghosts
ALTERNATE NAMES: ayakashi
HABITAT: seas, oceans, bays
DIET: none

APPEARANCE: When the ghosts of people who have died at sea transform into vengeful spirits, they become a particular type of ghost called a funayūrei. They are the shadows of drowned sailors, remaining in this world to find their former friends and comrades, to bring them down into the sea with them. Like many ghosts, funayūrei usually appear as dead bodies wearing white funerary robes. They can be seen at night, when the moon is new or full, or on particularly stormy or foggy nights, especially during Obon. They appear as an eerie, luminescent mist at first, which gets closer and closer until it forms into a ship with a ghostly crew.

INTERACTIONS: Funayūrei ghost ships attacks in different ways, sometimes charging headlong towards the other ship, causing it to steer away so sharply that it capsizes, other times carrying a ghostly crew who cling to the side of the other ship and try to drag it down under the water. The ghosts themselves carry large ladles and buckets which they use to fill ships with seawater, sinking them and adding more souls to their crew. Occasionally funayūrei strike not as a large crew of man-sized ghosts, but as one very large ghost who rises out of the water to capsize a ship immediately. This ghost often demands a barrel from the crew, which it uses to flood the deck and sink the ship. These giant funayūrei are often confused with umi-bōzu, which appear and attack in a similar manner.

It is said that a clever crew can outsmart the funayūrei by carrying buckets and ladles with holes in the bottom, so that despite their efforts the ghosts will not be able to flood the ship. Encounters with ghost ships can also be avoided by boldly sailing directly through the phantasm instead of turning to avoid a collision – though this runs the risk that the other ship may actually be a real one and not a phantasm. Some crews have also escaped the funayūrei’s wrath by throwing food and provisions overboard as offerings to the hungry ghosts, who chase after the food instead of the crew.


Japanese Mythology & Folklore: Yokai - Eritategoromo



Do I wear the clothes or do they wear me?!

襟立衣
えりたてごろも

TRANSLATION: standing-collar clothes

APPEARANCE: Eritategoromo is a a Buddhist high priest’s kimono that has transformed into a yokai. It still looks mostly like the high-collared ceremonial robes of a priest, however the long, pointed collar has transformed into a long, pointed nose, and it has sprouted eyes and a beard.

ORIGIN: Eritategoromo was once the kimono which was worn by Sōjōbō, King of the Tengu, who lives on Mount Kurama, north of Kyoto. Sōjōbō is a fearsome, powerful, wise, god-like monster, with the strength of 1000 ordinary tengu. He is a master swordsman, and was responsible for training a number of famous legendary heroes of Japan, such as Minamoto no Yoshitsune. Though he is an ascetic yamabushi and great teacher, like any tengu, Sōjōbō has an evil side too: he is said to feed on children who wander too deep into the mountains.

Sōjōbō was not always a tengu. He was born a human, and became a well respected high priest. He was also proud, and he mistakenly believed that he had achieved satori, or enlightenment. Though he expected to become a Buddha when he died, he transformed instead into a demonic tengu. Even as a tengu, the proud Sōjōbō continued to live as a Buddhist priest, training daily, and wearing his ornate priestly vestments. Either due to Sōjōbō’s extreme pride, or due to being worn by a magical tengu, some spirit became attached to his high-collared robes and they transformed into this yokai.


Japanese Mythology & Folklore: Yokai - Dorotabō



Muddy rice field monk

泥田坊
どろたぼう

TRANSLATION: muddy rice field monk
HABITAT: unused, overgrown fields
DIET: none; survives on vengeance alone

APPEARANCE: Dorotabō are the transformed ghosts of old men who toiled so hard on their rice fields, only to see them lie in waste by a neglectful owner after their death. They appears as one-eyed, three-fingered humanoid figures rising out of the mud at night. It is said that the five fingers of the human hand represent three vices and two virtues: anger, greed, ignorance, wisdom, and compassion. The ghostly dorotabō appears with only the three fingers representing the vices, because he is a spirit of vengeance and rage, angry at the vices which now shame his life’s work.

BEHAVIOR: Dorotabō roam the overgrown fields, calling out in a mournful voice, “Give me back my rice field!” They haunt their fields night after night, preventing sleep and otherwise causing feelings of unease to the new inhabitants of their lands. They continue haunting until the wasteful owners changes their ways or give up and flee, selling the field to someone who will take proper care of it.

ORIGIN: Most of Japan’s land is bound up in inhospitable mountain ranges where farming is impossible, so the land that is usable by humans is extremely valuable. Families can save for a life time just to buy a small plot of precious farmland in hopes to leave it to their offspring after they die. Of course, children do not always follow their parents’ wishes, and a prodigal son who forsakes his father’s hard-earned fields in favor of vices like gambling and drinking is usually the cause of this eerie specter.


Japanese Mythology & Folklore: Yokai - Dodomeki



Hundred Eye Demon

百々目鬼
どどめき

TRANSLATION: hundred hundred eye (i.e. many-eyed) demon
HABITAT: cities, towns, and especially marketplaces
DIET: as a human

APPEARANCE: Dodomeki are cursed women with very long arms covered in tiny bird eyes. They were once human girls who developed a penchant for stealing money. Because of their wicked actions, one day hundreds of tiny bird eyeballs sprout out of their arms and they transform into this monster.

ORIGIN: When Toriyama Sekien first described this yokai, he inserted a number of puns. The dodomeki is described as being a woman with long arms — having “long arms” in Japanese is a figure of speech meaning somebody who likes to steal a lot. Thus, the dodomeki has long arms, both figuratively and literally.

The copper coin, or dōsen, had a hole in the middle of it, and was colloquially known as a chōmoku, or “bird’s eye,” due to its shape. This play on words is the reason that this yokai grew birds’ eyes as a result of stealing copper coins. Money was also sometimes referred to as oashi, or “feet,” because it comes and goes as if it had its own feet.

The phrase ashi ga tsuku is a common idiom which means “to catch someone who has committed a crime.” Very clever readers would have noticed that if the word ashi, which can also mean money, is replaced with chōmoku, which can also mean money, the phrase changes to mean “covered in bird eyes.”

LEGENDS: Long ago, in what is now Tochigi prefecture, lived a nobleman named Fujiwara no Hidesato. He had just been granted the title of kokushi of Shimotsuke province for his valor in defeating the rebel Taira no Masakado. One day while hunting in his newly acquired countryside, Hidesato was approached by an old man, who warned him that some kind of oni had been sighted at the horse graveyard at Utsunomiya. Hidesato grabbed his bow and arrow and went to investigate.

Hidesato reached the horse graveyard and waited until nightfall. When the hour of the ox came, an enormous demon appeared and ravenously began devouring horse carcasses. The demon stood over ten feet tall, had sharp, spiked hair, and was covered in glowing eyes all over its body. Hidesato carefully aimed an arrow at the brightest glowing eyeball and fired. The arrow hit its mark, and the demon roared in pain, fleeing into the woods until it finally collapsed at the foot of Mount Myōjin.

The battle was not over, for although the demon was near-fatally wounded, it still had power left. From its body erupted a torrent of flame. Its mouth split open and poisonous fumes spewed forth. The toxic air and intense heat proved too much for Fujiwara no Hidesato, who had to give up and return to his palace. When Hidesato returned the next day, the ground was blackened and burnt over a large area, but there was no sign of the demon.

400 years later, during the Muromachi period, the dodomeki finally reappeared. A village had sprung up on the northern slope of Mount Myōjin, and strange things had begun happening. The temple’s head priest had been suffering mysterious injuries and unexplained fires began to break out at the temple. A new head priest, the virtuous and holy Saint Chitoku, was called to discover what the cause of the strange problems was.

Saint Chitoku noticed that one young woman stopped by the temple frequently whenever he preached his sermons, and recognized it as the dodomeki in disguise. The demon, terribly wounded, had retreated into some caves nearby to heal. It transformed into a young woman, and had been visiting the site where it fell, gradually sucking back up all of the noxious fumes that it had breathed out, and collecting all of the blood that it had bled in the battle with Fujiwara no Hidesato. The village temple had been built on top of the battle site, and the dodomeki caused the fires and attacked the priest to scare them away.

One day, Saint Chitoku confronted the demon in disguise, and she finally revealed her true form was a dodomeki. She did not attack him, however; while frequenting the temple, she had overheard Chitoku’s powerful sermons, and they had stuck with her. The dodomeki promised that she would never again commit any act of evil. Since then, the area around Mount Myōjin has come to be known as Dodomeki.


Japanese Mythology & Folklore: Yokai - Daitengu



Divine Dog

大天狗
だいてんぐ

TRANSLATION: greater tengu (divine dog)
ALTERNATE NAMES: they often go by their individual given names
HABITAT: high, remote mountaintops
DIET: many individuals have preferred foods or strict religious dietary regimens

APPEARANCE: Daitengu are much larger and imposing than kotengu. They usually appear in a more human-like form; usually that of a man dressed in the robes of an ascetic monk, with a red face, an incredibly long and phallic nose (the longer the nose, the more powerful the tengu), and large, feathered wings sprouting from their backs. Only rarely do they appear in the more primitive avian form of the lesser tengu.

BEHAVIOR: Daitengu live solitary lives on remote mountaintops, far removed from humanity. Their time is spent in thought, meditation, and perfecting themselves. They possess greater pride, wisdom, and power than their lesser tengu cousins. They can also be just as savage and unpredictable, making them potentially much more dangerous. In fact, natural disasters and other great catastrophes are often attributed to the wrath of a powerful daitengu. However, they also possess more self-restraint, and some of them are occasionally willing to give aid to worthy humans.

INTERACTIONS: Over the centuries, while kotengu continued to terrorize people whenever they could, daitengu came to be viewed less as the enemy of mankind and more as a race of god-like sages living deep in the mountains. They became closely connected with the ascetic mountain religion of Shugendō. The mountain mystics grew close to the tengu, seeking their wisdom and worshiping them as divine beings. It is perhaps through this mystic religion that humankind was eventually able to earn the respect of the tengu. Many brave men have ventured into the unknown wilds in hopes of gaining some of the tengu’s wisdom, and occasionally, the tengu would teach secrets and impart their magical knowledge to the worthiest of them. (One of Japan’s most famous warriors, Minamoto no Yoshitsune, is said to have learned swordsmanship from the tengu Sōjōbō.)

By the 19th century, the warlike nature and vicious demeanor of the tengu came to be seen as honorable traits unique to these powerful bird-like spirits, and their knowledge and skills were popularized in the arts, through ukiyo-e prints, and noh and kabuki theater. From then on, tengu have remained one of the most well-known and loved subjects of Japanese folklore.

ORIGIN: According to Buddhist lore, tengu are born when a person dies who is not wicked enough to go to Hell, but is too angry, vain, proud, or heretical to go to Heaven. The tengu is a personification of those excessive vices, magnified and empowered in a new, demonic form.


Japanese Mythology & Folklore: Yokai - Chōchin obake



Paper Lantern Ghost

提灯お化け
ちょうちんおばけ

TRANSLATION: paper lantern ghost

APPEARANCE: When a paper lantern, or a chōchin, reaches an advanced age, it sometimes becomes a chōchin obake. The paper splits along one of its wooden ribs, forming a gaping mouth with a wild, lolling tongue. One or two eyes pop out of the upper half of the lantern, and occasionally arms or legs may sprout from its body as well.

BEHAVIOR: Like the karakasa-kozō, it rarely causes physical harm, preferring simply to surprise and scare humans, laughing and rolling its large tongue and big eyes at guests in the home. Occasionally, power onryō have been known to disguise themselves as chōchin obake: a case of one of the most dangerous supernatural entities masquerading as one of the most comical and harmless.


Japanese Mythology & Folklore: Yokai - Chimi



Mountain Spirit

魑魅
ちみ

TRANSLATION: mountain spirit
ALTERNATE NAMES: sudama
HABITAT: mountains, forests, and other wilderness across Japan
DIET: varies, includes humans

APPEARANCE: Chimi is a general term for the monsters that live in the mountains, forests, swamps, stones, and other parts of nature. They have human-like faces and bestial bodies. They feed on the bodies of the dead — particularly the innards — and sometimes bring disease and other evil things with them wherever they go.

INTERACTIONS: Chimi tend to be nasty, or at least mischievous, when it comes to humans. They trick humans who are wandering in the mountains, and cause them to lose their ways. Once isolated in this way, chimi can attack, often killing their victims.

ORIGIN: The name chimi is derived from the ancient Chinese history known as The Records of the Grand Historian: Chi is the name of a tiger-like mountain god, while Mi is a swamp god with the head of a boar and the body of a human. Over time, the names of these gods combined and became a term for all kinds of monstrously shaped nature spirits. In Japan, chimi are considered to be a kind of mountain kami.


Japanese Mythology & Folklore: Yokai - Buruburu



Send shivers down your spine

震々
ぶるぶる

TRANSLATION: onomatopoeic; the sound of shivering
ALTERNATE NAMES: zozogami
HABITAT: human-inhabited areas
DIET: cowardice

APPEARANCE: Buruburu are sometimes referred to as the spirit of cowardice. They follow people and cause them to shudder in fear.

INTERACTIONS: Buruburu are born when humans perform acts of cowardice, such as running away from battle. They possess people by clinging to their shirt collars and touching the backs of their necks. This causes their hair to stand on end and sends shivers down their bodies.

ORIGIN: The words buruburu and zo are Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of shivering and the chill of fear. This spirit’s name comes from the sound of the shivers that it causes to run down people’s spines.